Where is God?
Tsunamis roar and thousands die. Where is God to save them?
Viruses and other pathogens claim millions -- probably billions over the course of history. Where was God to rescue them?
Wars, famine, rape, murder, slavery, torture and oppression of every kind. Where was God to fight for the poor and the small?
The Bible makes tons of promises about God saving the oppressed and God protecting the weak. But there is more than a little evidence to suggest that it is the strong who prosper and the vicious who advance. For every Gandhi and King and Mother Theresa, there is a Pol Pot, an Idi Amin and an Adolph Hitler to undo their painstakingly wrought works of charity and goodness. It took a hundred years of resistance and organization to bring down some of the mechanisms of racism in this country -- poll taxes and lynchings and separate-but equals -- but only a lack of rigor and a few well-chosen words by a presidential candidate to bring the whole, howling mob mentality back.
Where is God?
Any theist worth his or her holy water needs to grapple with this. You can't just poopoo the idea that God seems so distant and uninvolved. So what to make of our long-absent father?
One approach is to try to supply an answer to the question, "If God exists and God is loving, what would God be trying to teach us by allowing misery, greed and suffering to continue?"
If I were to try to puzzle this out, I might start with a few candid facts:
- God does not make us good. He sets the standards -- teaching, guiding, challenging-- and then lets us make our choices. We can love, and make our lives more tolerable and joyful. Or we can hate, bringing destruction to ourselves and to one another.
- God does not heal. Not in the instantaneous manner of miracle cures. He instills in some the insatiable desire to "make better" or the sense of dismay at the suffering that others tolerate in the treatment of their fellows. They respond with the application of their human knowledge and experience to the problems of suffering. Experience that shows how wine applied to wounds keeps them clean, and how oil seals out illness. Further study that shows how impossibly-tiny organisms are responsible for much illness, and that measures like extreme heat and chemicals will block their growth and spread.
- God does not create, at least nor in the ex nihilo way we have been taught. His creation is bound up in the cycles of death, survival and rebirth that we have discovered only in the last 150 years.
- God does not speak. Not in the way that the Bible seems to show -- in startling clarity, instantaneously and graven on tablets. His speech dawns in gradual insights gained over a lifetime and many generations.
- God does not save. Not in the angel-wielding-a-vengeful-sword way of biblical illustrations. He inspires goodness, to which some respond with good example, good laws and good teaching. To save a starving child, one must learn that the child is human. Then one must set up systems to allow aid to come to the child. To save from war, one must learn to negotiate and have dialog with adversaries. One much agitate for peace and hold off on belligerent response until all options have been exhausted. To save from disease, one must study medicine and to engage with the sick, learning to work with the rhythms of the body as it fights off illness. One must learn the compassion that encourages the strong to tap their inner fonts of healing, and the weak to accept gracefully the decline that leads to a good death.
The God that lives is one who lies behind the wall of human suffering, nudging us toward kindness, goodness and away from hatred, envy and greed. Having held us as we find our balance, he has let go of the handlebars and has allowed us to wobble down the sidewalk on our own, stumbling and lurching occasionally, but eventually learning to steer and pedal on our own. This is a hard God, and one who risks appearing absent, uncaring or non-existent. But he takes that risk and allows his people to totter off on their way, free to build a world that is fair, humane and pleasant -- a Garden of Eden -- or a hellscape of war, ruthlessness, unequal wealth and misery.
The absent Father is not absent, but ever-present. That he does not fix your every problem is to teach you to bear up under hardship, let go of your obsessions of unworthiness, and learn to make your world a better place. Hard love, but love nonetheless.